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'Outrage' Over Lincoln Square Alternative High School Addressed by O'Connor

By Patty Wetli | March 23, 2015 12:34pm
 Pathways in Education has plans to open a charter school for CPS dropouts next to the MB Bank building at Lawrence and Western.
Pathways in Education has plans to open a charter school for CPS dropouts next to the MB Bank building at Lawrence and Western.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

LINCOLN SQUARE — Ald. Pat O'Connor (40th) took to social media Monday to respond to constituents' concern over a proposed alternative high school in Lincoln Square.

Since news of the school's application came to the public's attention last Thursday, O'Connor said his office had fielded numerous phone calls ranging "from simple inquiry to outrage that the application was filed and there has been no discussion in the community."

A note posted to the alderman's website and shared via email and Twitter attempted to clear up misconceptions about the school.

"I’m not quite sure why this is suddenly coming to light as this application was originally put before the Zoning Board of Appeals in October last year," he wrote.

In fact, O'Connor said he was approached by representatives from Pathways in Education a year ago about opening an alternative high school, contracted through Chicago Public Schools, at 4816 N. Western Ave.

The alderman said he directed the school to speak with officials at St. Matthias, as well as owners of neighboring businesses including Walgreens, McDonald's and Subway that could be impacted by an influx of students.

"Next, I asked them to bring a City building inspector into the building to determine if the site could, in fact, be a school given the stringent code requirements for natural light, fire code, etc.," he continued.

"Assuming that those hurdles are cleared, it is my intent to then hold a community meeting. I see no reason to have a community discussion before we even know if, in fact, the site would qualify," O'Connor said.

Pathways (PIE) is one of four companies approved in 2014 by Chicago Public Schools as part of an expansion of programs aimed at struggling students and dropouts, technically referred to as Alternative Learning Opportunity Programs.

Existing PIE schools in Chicago are located in the Ashburn, Brighton Park and Avondale neighborhoods. According to PIE's website, the proposed Lincoln Square site "has been delayed until further notice," but packages are being delivered to "PIE Lincoln" at the Western Avenue address and the space has been outfitted with computers, tables, desks, chairs and other materials.

Listing the Lincoln Square site as part of its school network is "premature" on the part of Pathways, O'Connor said.

"They’ve told my office that they would remove this from their website," he said.

The Chicago PIE schools serve students ages 15-21, targeting, according to CPS, "youth who have been out of school, are significantly off track for graduation, are chronically truant or are otherwise at risk for academic failure."

PIE's education model, as explained on its website, provides both independent study and small group instruction aimed at helping students complete their high school education.

"Alternative schools exist because sometimes circumstances exist that make it more appropriate that their student not re-enroll in a regular CPS school. Parenthood, the need to support themselves and/or families, simply being older requires that we create alternative pathways to an education diploma and a future," O'Connor said.

"When a student graduates from Pathways in Education, they receive a diploma from what would be their neighborhood high school and that CPS high school is credited with that graduate," he explained.

Yet the quality of education students receive by operators such as Pathways has been called into question, referred to as the "McDonald's" of education by some experts.

A joint investigation by Catalyst Chicago and WBEZ, published in February, found that "In general, these options schools rely on computer-based instruction, with little or no classroom teaching and discussion. In a week or month, students can whiz through a course that would take a year or semester in a traditional school."

“Often when we look under the hood, there is a lower quality of learning going on," Sonja Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, told Catalyst/WBEZ.

A decision by the Zoning Board of Approval regarding Pathways' application has been delayed until at least May.

"The decision to proceed to a hearing before the ZBA is theirs," O'Connor said.

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